The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has banned Russian track and field athletes from the upcoming Rio Olympic Games. The unprecedented decision is a punishment for systematic cheating through a state-sponsored doping program and the refusal of the All-Russia Athletics Federation (RusAF) to acknowledge the problem. The decision is a blow to Russian prestige, which is increasingly invested in such competitions to boost national pride and demonstrate the country’s status. Russian athletes may yet be able to compete, but only if they shun their country’s flag.

Russian track and field athletes have been suspended from international competition since last November, when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) released a report with stunning detail on a state-led program to cheat. It concluded that there was a “systematic and deeply rooted culture of cheating in Russian athletics.” That report found evidence of “a mandatory state-directed manipulation of laboratory analytical results” in the Moscow lab dating back at least as far as 2011.

Subsequent revelations are almost comic: athletes actually running away from drug testers, and state security agents threatening testing officials as well as using their formidable powers to corrupt the testing process, including swapping urine samples and going so far as to punch holes in walls to get access to sample bottles. The Russian Ministry of Sport directed the state laboratory that tested samples about which to report to international authorities.

Days after that decision, the IAAF set up a task force to inspect Russian efforts to clean house and set verifiable criteria that had to be met before Russian athletes would be allowed to resume international competition. That task force reported its findings last week and while noting some progress, it found continuing efforts to hamper and block drug testing as recently as last month.

Rune Andersen, chairman of the task force, concluded that “the deep-seated culture of tolerance, or worse, for doping, that got RusAF suspended in the first place appears not to have been changed materially, to date.” Russian sports authorities seem unable to enforce the doping bans and the Russian anti-doping agency is 18 to 24 months from compliance with the WADA code.

As a result, the IAAF voted to ban Russian track and field athletes from the Summer Olympic Games in August. Sebastien Coe, the president of the IAAF, explained that “our responsibility is to protect clean athletes and this is what this says … it is extremely difficult to define or have any presumption that athletes are in a safe and secure enough system for us to conclude that they are eligible for international competition.”

That move sparked howls of outrage from Russian officials and athletes. Russia’s Ministry of Sport continues to deny any involvement in a cheating program, saying it has no knowledge of any role played by state security forces, and blames individual athletes and other individuals for any problems. It claims to have done all it can to meet the IAAF criteria, and that punishing all athletes for the actions of just a handful of their colleagues would be unfair. Some Russian athletes have threatened to take the IAAF to the International Court for Human Rights.

The International Olympic Committee has meanwhile said it “fully respects the IAAF position.” In a comment on the task force report over the weekend, the IOC executive board noted that it “welcomes and supports the IAAF’s strong stance against doping. This is in line with the IOC’s long-held zero-tolerance policy.”

There are still the possibility that individual athletes “who can clearly and convincingly show that they are not tainted by the Russian system because they have been outside the country and subject to other, effective anti-doping systems” might be allowed to compete, but not under the Russian flag. The IAAF will make the determination as to who meets that criteria, but Anderson noted that “the crack in the door … is quite narrow.”

For all the complaints leveled by Russian officials, other athletes and federations have applauded an action they consider long overdue. The head of the United States Olympic Committee called it “a step in the right direction,” while Canadian and Australian athletics associations called it the right decision. Hiroshi Yokokawa, head of the Japan Association of Athletics Federations, bemoaned the “deep-rooted” doping culture in Russia, and Koji Murofushi, the gold medal winner in the hammer throw in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, said it was the right decision as well.

They are right. The Olympics, like all athletic competitions, rest on the fundamental belief that the contests are fair, pitting one individual against another on the basis of their natural abilities. If one athlete uses artificial means to acquire an advantage then the very point of the exercise is destroyed. To bring the entire apparatus of the state to bear on the side of that individual is no less corrosive. The IAAF has done the right thing. It is now up to Russia to prove beyond all doubt that it understands the stakes and will adjust its behavior accordingly.

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